Rock’s* Greatest Decade: The 1980s

By Tom Semioli : Note this op-ed was NOT composed by ChatGPT

*”Rock” is a term loosely used by the author.


In the beginning…


If I’ve learned anything in my sixty-three years on this mortal coil it’s that every generation (within my reach) holds their respective era of pop culture sacred. Sports, music, film, theater, television, radio, literature, fashion, journalism, art, and permutations thereof.


Everything was better “back in the day” including sex, drugs…and rock and roll!


My dad’s greaser pals revered Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis as the true rockers until “The Beatles came along and ruined everything….”  


My (slightly) older colleagues beholden to the 1960s cannot imagine a world sans The Rolling Stones, Who, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan, among others.  I was a three-and-a-half-year-old on 9 February 1964 whilst my family gathered to watch the black-and-white transmission of The Ed Sullivan Show. The closest I came to experiencing Beatlemania was when my mom dragged me to witness Help! at the British Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1965. The girls shrieked as if the lads were physically on stage. I get it. And now we have hologram concerts! How the mighty have profited postmortem…


In the 1970s I came of age in an ever-shifting landscape spanning Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Elton John, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones, and Stevie’s Fleetwood Mac to cite a few. This decade of decadence and artistic innovation has been recast ad nauseum in film, cable television, theater, books, and multi-media exhibitions well into the 21st Century. I was there folks. The 1970s were very good, perhaps great, but let’s get over it already.


Maybe those ’50s rockers were on to something. From the 1960s onward rock fractured in several disparate directions. Some view it as expansion of the artform. Others maintain the artform was diluted. Rock and roll, at its very core beginning was/is the bastard child of country, folk, jazz, and blues – so there never really was a “pure” version of the genre.  


Hence rock can be a hybrid of any of those aforementioned genres. And add the more recent musical formats such as rap, hip-hop, electronica and subdivisions thereof to the melting pot. Rock’s spirit of experimentation is certainly rooted in the 1960s, yet by the 1980s the tools were available to stretch the boundaries even farther. 


Artists and Audience Enjoy the Benefits of New Tech…


Which brings us to the 1980s – the era wherein I worked as a musician. Once reviled, and oft relegated to kitschy nostalgia obsessed with big hair and even bigger shoulder pads, time has come today for a reevaluation of the decade. My stance is that the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s are not inferior. Simply, in the 1980s we built upon the greatness of those that came before us. And those that followed, namely the ’90s and 21st Century, basked in our shadow. 


What happened?


Several watershed advances in technology were available to the artists and their audiences in relatively short time frame. This fact alone separates the decade from its ancestors.


In the studio, digital recording – cleaner and easier to edit and mix- overtook analog with its fragile inconsistent tapes which were prone to wear and tear; were easily damaged, and poorly duplicated. The introduction of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) changed the game with combining sounds and timbre. The horizon of tones and textures became limitless. 



When Yamaha debuted the portable and affordable DX7 keyboard in 1983 – rock stars to neighborhood bar bands now had an infinite number of sounds and textures at their disposal.  You could bring arena rock to your local pub. Orchestral works could now be replicated on stage. I was witness to Paul McCartney bringing side two of Abbey Road to sonic life at Madison Square Garden in 1989 – something the Fabs and George Martin couldn’t have fathomed in 1969. 


Electric basses and guitars vastly improved with active electronics, new ergonomic designs (Steinberger), effects pedals and rack mounts which, akin to their keyboard cousins, were portable, affordable, and durable.



In particular, the electric bass dominated the decade. No longer relegated to a low rumble in the stage mix or hum on record, bass players were now coming to the forefront as both groove masters and melodic equals. Note that on many ‘80s hits – the bass is the hook! 



Guitar and bass rigs became more reliable, moveable, and noise reduction developments (including instrument pick-ups) eliminated unwanted din and distortion – or enhanced it if you were so inclined.  Acoustic guitar and horn pickups became the norm – every note rendered could now resonate on record and on stage. Wireless systems afforded guitarists and bassists the freedom to prance about the stage and occasionally snag the spotlight.


Electronic Simmonds and Linn drums put percussionists in the same league as their voltage enhanced comrades.


The multi-track Porta-Studio replaced the cassette deck – hence demos became more precise – affording composers and arrangers more tools to hone their craft in their bedrooms and rehearsal studios. Heck, “unsigned” rockers released cassettes recorded and mixed on said gear which sold in indie shops and such chains as Tower Records. 



With the advances in music instrument tech, home and compact audio systems also developed in leaps and bounds. Compact Discs relegated vinyl, 8-track cartridges, and cassettes to dinosaur status. CDs eliminated surface noise and did away with the degradation and fragility of the LP / cassette since nothing actually touched the surface of the medium, and they were usable at home or on the road in a Walkman or car disc player.



New recording tech, new gear, a new music delivery system all added up to recordings that sounded better than ever. In fact, record companies helmed by profit motivated bean counters began to digitize, remaster, and repackage their valuable back catalogs complimented by sales gimmicks to sell Boomers their old records again: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, followed shortly by the Reunion Tour…and later, the Never-Ending Farewell Tour

Much of the aforementioned tech innovations had their shortcomings at first, but they were upgraded in ensuing years. All progress is messy at best. Musicians, experimental by nature, took the new technology and ran with it – sonically, and artistically.


I Want My MTV…


Of course, no discussion of the 1980s cannot ignore the impact of MTV. Though 24/7 cable TV video didn’t quite kill the radio star (radio killed itself with media consolidation), that dirty ass genre known as rock and roll was absorbed into the entertainment industry mainstream. 


When MTV became fairer and more balanced, the platform afforded exposure to artists who would have gone otherwise unnoticed in secondary and tertiary markets. Programs such as 120 Minutes, Headbangers Ball, Yo! MTV appealed to hardcore and casual audiences alike.



Props to MTV Europe whose videos veered more towards artistic expression as MTV USA fell prey to product placement and degenerated into soft-core porn.




I watched for research purposes only….




From hair bands to pretty boy-and-girl techno rockers, having a bigger and more bombastic mainstream also begat a healthy, stealthy “alternative” DIY scene in many a college town, which would eventually rise to the surface in the 1990s. The 1980s were a golden era of indie rock with loud guitars and melodies.




Sad Songs Say So Much…


To my ears, the 1980s was the last era of classic pop songwriting, based on the two forms of musical structure familiar to our western ears: AABA / “Tin Pan Alley” and “12 bar blues” and all the permutations thereof. I won’t debate the songs nor the artists. Each spoke to their generation in their language.




And I extend kudos to the ’60s and ’70s rockers who were able to adapt and reinvent themselves as the concept of the “legacy artist” had not quite gestated until the end of the decade. 




To my ears, the 1980s was the greatest era of musicianship. 1980s musicians were educated in the 1970s, hence we read music, not tablature. We also learned aplenty from the past masters of our respective instruments. Those of us who were serious about our careers delved into theory and composition – as did previous generations. Again, we had more tools. For example, when you composed a horn or a string passage, you could actually hear it (and modify it) in the moment thanks to electronic keyboards. And you could play it on the gig the same day! Think of what Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn could have accomplished with such toys!  Composition was everywhere!


Instructional VHS tapes afforded players private lessons with the greats to compliment a formal music education.  



All That Jazz….


Though its roots lie in the soul-jazz movement as exemplified by CTI recordings in the late 1960s and 1980s, contemporary jazz and jazz fusion fell (mostly) into the category of “smooth jazz” or “quiet storm” – two hideous marketing titles. Many jazz artists approached the art of recording akin to rockers in that the long-player was not simply a souvenir of a live performance, but an entity unto itself. Yet jazz was still considered popular music – and the masses responded. Witness hits by George Benson (“Give Me The Night”), Herbie Hancock (“Rockit”), and Anita Baker (“Caught Up in the Rapture,” “Sweet Love”), to cite a few – all of which brought audiences back into the clubs and prompted the casual listener to purchase jazz recordings.


The bassist named for a small, sharp pointed organ at the end of the abdomens of bees employed many a contemporary jazz star for his stellar debut disc The Dream of the Blue Turtles in 1985, namely Darryl Jones (Miles Davis, Steps Ahead), Kenny Kirkland (Branford and Wynton Marsalis), Branford Marsalis, and Omar Hakim (Weather Report).


In 1986 a jazz film ‘Round Midnight starring Dexter Gordon (Academy Award nomination for Best Actor), and Herbie Hancock, was a resounding box-office success. Jazz was hip again in Hollywood! Bassists Marcus Miller and Stanely Clarke, among many others composed numerous television and film scores. 




Though ’70s jazz superstars Return To Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report flamed out – save for Jaco Pastorius’ brilliant World Of Mouth (1981), Miles was still leader of the pack even as Wynton Marsalis became the “chief of jazz police” – determining what jazz is and what jazz is not. Refer to Ken Burns’ woefully incomplete and misinformed PBS Jazz (2001) documentary series which anointed the bloviating trumpeter as spokesperson for a genre he did absolutely nothing to advance. 


Sadly, jazz has yet to recover from the death of Davis in 1991 and Wynton Marsalis’ shameful, pandering corporate sell-out of the artform. (Wanna know how I really feel?






I Want to Play for You… Last Era of Guitar Gods… Instrumental Virtuosos….


The decade was rife with instrumental virtuosos who inspired us to be better. To cite a few: Eddie Van Halen, Kirk Hammett, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Johnny Marr, Randy Rhoades, G.E. Smith, Yngwie Malmsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Stanley Jordan, The Edge, Emily Remler, Joe Satriani, Prince, Mark Knopfler, Slash, Mike Campbell, Mike Stern, John Scofield, John Ashton, Mark King, Flea, Pino Palladino, Marcus Miller, Geddy Lee, Tony Levin, Fernando Saunders, Doug Wimbish, Cliff Burton, Tony Franklin, John Taylor, Will Lee, Mick Karn, Bakithi Kumalo, Carmine Rojas, Robbie Shakespeare, Guy Pratt, Sting, Darryl Jones, Billy Sheehan, Neal Peart, Steve Gadd, Stuart Copeland, Phil Collins, Jeff Porcaro, Chad Smith, Kenny Aaronoff, Vinnie Colaiuta, Simon Phillips, Greg Phillinganes, Howard Jones, Vince Clarke, David Paich, Thomas Dolby…



Rock and a Hard Place…Prog Progress


Among the most significant musical developments of the 1980s was the evolution of hard rock.


In the disco era of the mid to late ’70s, the genre became irrelevant as its greatest practitioners – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, among others either broke up, or lost their way due to substance abuse.  However “heavy metal” a term attributed to many sources, was regrouping by ’78. Bands such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Def Leppard, Motorhead – all founded in the ‘70s – were all laying the groundwork for the “New Wave of British Metal.” 


“We want to be the band that if we moved in next door to you, your lawn would die.” bassist Ian Fraser Kilmister aka “Lemmy”


By way of new recording technology, as referenced above, heavy metal and hard rock records sounded far superior to their ancestors in the ’70s. The muddy din of such metal classics as Deep Purple’s In Rock, and Machine Head along with all the Black Sabbath releases from ’70s up until the Dio years which began in 1980 – though influential, were rendered sonically ancient – even with their ’90s remasters. 




Similar to the way ’80s pop artists were improving on the work of their predecessors, these artists hit their stride in the new decade. And there was plenty of room for the older guard as well: Ozzy Osbourne with Randy Rhoads, Ronnie James Dio, Robert Plant, Rainbow, a reformed Deep Purple, a sober Alice Cooper, a rejuvenated AC / DC, Whitesnake, Runaways alumnae Joan Jett and Lita Ford, among others waxed classic sides.


Aerosmith commenced their first career resurgence, collaborating with Run DMC on their classic track “Walk This Way” – which ran in heavy, heavy, heavy rotation on MTV and was a major factor in hip-hop crossing over into the mainstream.  


In California, it was no surprise that the west coast hard rockers took their artistic and aesthetic cues from Hollywood. Made-for-MTV collectives including Van Halen with a bona fide rock god guitarist, Motley Crue, Poison, Dokken, Warrant, and New Jersey heartthrob Bon Jovi, topped the charts. Guns ‘n’ Roses upgraded the Aerosmith / Rolling Stones modus operandi with great success . Underground metal mavens Slayer, Anthrax, and Metallica also enjoyed commercial acceptance.


In fact, it was ’80s metal which paved the way for ‘90s alternative – which was essentially a stripped-down version of ’80s hard rock with no guitar solos, no keyboards, no entertainment value, and with desperation replacing celebration.




Prog rock – emblematic of ’70s excess – went decidedly pop and further opened the genre to millions of new listeners. Though purists revile this era of “prog progress” it was a natural growth. Bands such as Rush, King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis / Phil Collins / Peter Gabriel (’70s vets all) retained their signature instrumental prowess while trimming the bloated filler that weighed down many a prog-rock platter. 



The Blues Never Went Away…


A genre most responsible of the artform that is rock and roll – the blues, did not enjoy a comeback simply because it never really went away. You can’t keep a virtuoso down for long. Thanks to ‘80s technology, the blues sounded fresher than in previous generations. 1980s Blues artists did not try to “sound” old. Vintage gear was left where it belonged – in the storage bins or museums!


Players such as Stevie Ray Vaughn served as a conduit to blues’ illustrious past. Yes, he worked his Hendrix mojo to the max. Which prompted young players to research Jimi – note all the Hendrix re-issues throughout the decade. Not a bad thing to my ears.

Eric Clapton started sounding like Eric Clapton again on Journeyman (1989). Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time (1989) scored several Grammys for its indelible meld of songcraft and musicianship. Jeff Healy, Robert Cray, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, George Thorogood, Colin James, and Robben Ford, cut remarkable records that resonated beyond the genre’s faithful.



Once again, the older guard thrived: Johnny Winter, ZZ Top, J. Geils Band, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, to cite a few, continued their mastery and influence. Agreed, The Blues Brothers album and film were steeped in parody, however it reminded a new generation the importance of Memphis Stax, and Muscle Shoals. The movie also brought Aretha Franklin back into the mainstream.


The World’s Most Dangerous Band…


Assuming the mantle created by Doc Severinsen’s legendary NBC Orchestra as heard on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson – bandleader Paul Shaffer and bassist Will Lee’s groundbreaking tenure in the World’s Most Dangerous Band for David Letterman’s Late Night and Late Show brought the language of rock, blues, soul, folk, country, jazz fusion, and funk to the Great American Songbook: a major shift in pop culture that happened in the 1980s!



Snthly The Best…


Call it “New Romantic,” “Synth Pop,” call it whatever you like. In the 1980s British artists such as Spandau Ballet, OMD, Duran Duran, Art of Noise, Erasure, Human League, Heaven 17, Culture Club, Depeche Mode, and Gary Numan, among others, appropriated the same three chords Chuck Berry rendered on “Johnny B. Goode,” transferred Brill Building harmonies to electronic keyboards, tarted up their appearance, and created a sound unique to any generation before or after. Try that in the 1990s or 21st Century!





Keys also played a key role in the resurrection of soul music. Now dubbed “contemporary rhythm and blues” legacy artists along with a new breed of singers borne of a jazz gospel pedigree stood toe to toe with Motown, and Sound of Philly’s finest. Whitney Houston, Darryl Hall and John Oates, Tina Turner, Lionel Ritchie, Prince, Michael Jackson, Terence Trent D’Arby (Sananda Maitreya), Diana Ross, and Madonna cut electro groove tracks that moved a generation – literally and physically – with melodies to boot!  




Even teen pop pablum artists-steeped in dance / disco mode, such as New Kids on the Block, Debbie Gibson, Laura Branigan, and New Edition used new tech to their artistic and commercial advantage.


Make Americana Great Again…


Artists influenced by the folk, singer-songwriter, and outlaw country artists of previous decades created a sub-genre which embraced all the aforementioned camps.




Americana or “roots rock” artists including Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, John Cougar Mellencamp, Jason and the Scorchers, Steve Earle, The Del Lords, Chris Isaak, The Blasters, and Los Lobos all commenced careers which extend well into the 21st Century.




George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison – then old geezers in their mid-40s – collaborated as The Travelling Wilburys for a classic slab that reminded the kids where it all came from. Folk rockers including Suzanne Vega (with KYBP on Film bassist Mike Visceglia), and Tracy Chapman topped the charts too, and exemplified the diversity of the era.




Prince… (No Explanation Necessary) 



Seminal Moment…


The 1960s were defined by the Woodstock Music Festival. Several music extravaganzas emerged in the 1970s, with George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh in 1971 being the most memorable. For the 1980s it was Bob Geldof’s Live Aid. Though Queen stole the show, my favorite performance was Bryan Ferry with bassist Marcus Miller and moonlighting Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. 


You could argue that Woodstock was the G.O.A.T. however the “Live Aid” tag did not plague the artists who appeared, whereas the “Woodstock” association branded bands who were far more expansive than that one psychedelic moment in time. The 1990s’ attempt to restage three days of peace and love was a disaster.


By the ’80s, the musicianship and staging was significantly more developed. Good work Woodstock – thanks for the idea George, but Live Aid was better.




Smells Like Teen Redundancy


Why not the 90s? Great songs, great artists, and the infusion of hip-hop, rap, and electronica continued but was no longer as groundbreaking as it was in the 80s. Rock commenced its backward slide. Pro-Tools, with its cut-and-paste modus operandi didn’t require instrumental proficiency. 


Musicianship in general plummeted. Especially my instrument, the electric bass, which on most ’90s rock recordings served as a root note adjunct to the guitar. As a result, by the 2000s the electric bass vanished from pop records, a trend which continues well into the 2020s. Props to all the ’90s jam bands, in particular Dave Matthews, Phish, 311 to name three, who kept the musicianship bar high. 


The 1990s put a new coat of paint on old ideas. By the 2000s and beyond, pop culture became American Idol-ized. We were better off when ugly people made beautiful music instead of the other way around! Song structure which served Frank Sinatra to Phil Collins gave way to algorithms and scientifically certified pleasurable timbres. The triumph of spectacle over substance became evident not only in music, but in American life. If only Nero were here to fiddle with auto-tune!


For all ye who opine that the high-tech, spandexed, Aqua-Netted ’80s strayed too far from the proletariat roots of rock and roll, imagine if you will Jimi Hendrix with a guitar synthesizer, and massive digital video monitors. How would The Beatles have taken Sgt. Pepper to the stage with keyboard samples, lasers, and moving stages? What could Elvis Presley’s TCB cats have conjured with MIDI?


Granted, the 1980s got lucky. We stood on the shoulders of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. The results of years of technological and artistic experimentation, innovation, and tech hardware came to fruition at the onset of the decade. Audiences were ready for something new. “Retro” – which wasn’t even a term then, was passe.  In the current pop realm especially, the 1980s are oft imitated but never surpassed. Rock music in all its sub-genres has been in a perpetual rinse and repeat cycle for the entirety of the 21st Century.


You could argue that the 1980s is the G.O.A.T. by accident, sheer luck…or by design.  You could be wrong, you could be right. What say you Johnny? 


Tom’s Top 10 Essential Bass Centric 1980s Tracks.  

**You fret less with a fretless…


Duran Duran: “Rio” (bassist John Taylor)


Madonna: “Like A Prayer” (bassist Guy Pratt)

Level 42: “Running With the Family” (bassist Mark King) 

Paul Young: “Everytime You Go Away” (bassist Pino Palladino**) 


Lou Reed: “My House” (bassist Fernando Saunders**) 


The Clash “Magnificent Seven” (bassist Norman Watt-Roy)  

Metallica: “Master of Puppets” (bassist Cliff Burton) 

Red Hot Chili Peppers: “Higher Ground” (bassist Michael Balzary) 

The Firm: “Radioactive” (bassist Tony Franklin**) 

Paul Simon: “You Can Call Me All” (bassist Bakithi Kumalo**)